|title||Peering Out from Behind the Curtain|
"Peering Out from Behind the Curtain" was an interview by Steve Marchese that appeared in RE:UP magazine, Manual 09, around January 2006. Photos within the article are credited to Peter Iain Campbell.
"Peering Out from Behind the Curtain" by Steve Marchese
RE:UP Manual 09 (~Jan 2006), pp. 28-31,86
This is an original text copied verbatim from the original source. Do not edit this text to correct errors or misspellings. Aside from added wikilinks, this text is exactly as it originally appeared.
Edinburgh has a hangover. The normal din of this bustling university city remains eerily suppressed by a combination of the preceding night's partying and a cold front quickly descending from the North. The streets are empty save some churchgoers and a stray dog. An old man in a faded suit hands lunch menus to nobody. The museum set up as a meeting point with Boards of Canada--brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin-- is still closed and won't open to the public for at least another hour. I am sitting in the middle of an unfamiliar place, waiting to meet two virtually faceless musicians with whom I have yet to directly speak. Could this scene be completly engineered or am I thinking too much into it? Yet for some reason, I know there couldn't be a more perfect start to a day highlighted by a sit-down with Boards of Canada.
The development of mystery and rumor is certainly nothing new to contemporary music. Stories of Paul McCartney's death surfaced after the Beatles released their thirteenth record. In 1989, nearly 15 years after the formation of Judas Priest, the metal band was put on trial (and eventually exonerated) after a double suicide allegedly caused by hidden messages like "try suicide" and "do it, do it" on the record Stained Cross. And although testaments to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon functioning as a second, synchronizing soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz started surfacing online in 1994, rumors of this pairing can be traced all the way back to 1979.
What Differentiates Boards of Canada from the rest of this smallish pantheon of mythologized artists, however, is the speed by which the duo have been able to invent and disseminate such intrigue. Much of it has to do with a pious and enthusiastic fan base, but in just a short time (over the release of only 3 full-length LPs) rumors--and some truths--have spread far and wide about the duo's religious proclivities, their use of embedded messages in tracks (sometimes known as backmasking) and secret tracks made anonymously for major pop stars.
Most of the speculation gained momentum due to the pair's reluctance to do face-to-face interviews. But now that they've surfaced in promotion of their new LP, The Campfire Headphase, it seems a lot of the conjecture has been systematically addressed in intervies online and recent features in European magazines The Wire and Groove. Even a fleeting peek behind the curtain shows them not to be the circuit-obsessed techno Bedouins protrayed by the media- but rather, a pair of well-adjusted, hugely likeable brothers who do not only finish each other's sentences, but who have also applied an admirable do-it-yourself philosophy to their unique pursuit of artistic perfection.
"There's never been a coordinated plan to engineer a blockade around who and what we are," says Mike Sandison, easing back into a chair at the coffee house where we finally decided to meet. "We wanted to make music that stood out on its own as an entity inside its own bubble. In the early stages we kind of felt like if we were going to out in magazines an start posing for photographs we'd spoil that."
And while the pair have managed to maintain an easy pastoral obscurity that is suprisingly only 40 minutes outside of Edinburgh by car, their music has gained increasing popularity worldwide- making it more difficult to stay hidden in the periphery of the limelight. "One of the worst things we've found is that by being kind of absent, people have a tendency to fill in the gaps." says Marcus Eoin Sandison (Eoin being his middle name, the two have recently revealed that they are in fact brothers). "When there's a hole, people will just make things up, it isn't so much that we're trying to be secretive. We just don't feel an eed to sell ourselves. As far as we're concerned it's not part of what we do. People write about us like we're these mountain hermits who just won't talk to anybody and we [wonder]; Where did that come from? We never said that to anyone."
People think of us as being one way," continues Mike. "We'd like to go out on tour in spandex and breathe fire but we just can't do that because we're supposed to be something else entirely," he jokes, duckin out of the sunlight that just surfaced through the quickly dissolving clouds. However, with a long day of interviews ahead it seems Sandison won't be able to get out of the light just yet. With the release of The Campfire Headphase, Boards of Canada have agreed to be willing participants in their largest press push in quite some time, prompting many to wonder, why now? "Isolation can get negative at times," continues Mike, "because you start to feel like you're being arrogant or that we're doing it because we hate people os much. But it's not like that at all, It's more about the fact that we don't want to ruin the art by making our lives more important than the music. Because our lives are just like that of any other artist: we're just trying to create something special."
In a way it seems like the self-sequestered twosome have enthusiastically embraced the chance to finally speak out, exploding from topic to topic like barges of fireworks wired together with small lengths of fuse. In mood, tone and content, a conversation with Boards of Canada barely echoes the consistency that governs their recordings. Instead it jumps from random subjects like Ted Nugent, Noriega (the dictator, not the MC), and an internet free lifestyle to Jerry Lewis films and trans-Atlantic politics with an effortless flow that defies the misinformed online reports of a disdain aimed at journalists. What captures my attention almost immediately is not how articulate the two are--I expected that considering the intricate language and presentation of their music--but how approachable and open they seem to almost any inquiry. A list of talking points I had prepared the night before is totally disregarded as the conversation steers itself amost invisibly toward one of the biggest questions that will be asked all day: Why haven't they played live in over 3 years?
Opening up a long stretch of conversation on the subject, Mike takes the lead "We've been under a lot of pressure to play of course," he confirms. "One of the things that comes through from the big boss man Warp Records is offers from festivals. Usually our respons to that is that we would be more comfortable playing a small venue that would suit what we do. Our live show as it was had ah eavy reliance on visuals--we were using video projections and monitors--and secretly over the last 3 years since we last played a gig we've started to develop a different show. We expanded the band and have friends who are part of the potential group if we go out on the road again. And we do intend to go out and play again but at the moment what we want to do is at odds with the offers coming in to play alongside bands like Foo Fighters and people like that."
Marcus, the quieter but by no means less passionate of the two, finishes Mike's thought and addresses more specifically what it is about Boards of Canada's sound that makes the prospect of a live show do tricky. "You've got to know the limitations of the music that you make. I always think of our music as being a lot more like headphone music, a brain music that you can drift into," he says. "So the idea of playing on a stage where you may be coming on just before a massive set by The Chemical Brothers doesn't sound like it would work. Earlier on though, when we were in transition from working with Skam to working with Warp, we did a couple of gigs that were label showcases with Warp artists. We have massive respect for guys like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin but we found ourselves doing shows with these guys and they were so full-on electronic and really full of energy. It wasn't really what we wanted to do at the time."
Finishing Marcus' thought, Mike chimes in for one last comment, the thought of which will certainly become fan-boy fodder for neo-prog and electronica lovers the world over. "It might have suited us better to be put on a bill beside Tortoise or somebody like that. And you never know, we still could end up doing it one day."
Talk of the new record conveniently follows, revolving around the idea for Boards of Canada that is perhaps their most important reord to date. In so many ways The Campfire Headphase marks a musical evolution for the brothers, but what makes it a truly compellin listen is its adherence to the band's emerging modus opreandi: To move forward--both technologically and philosophically--while maintaining a strong connection to the past. This time, in palce of the numerological Easter eggs and hidden Branch Daviddian references, Boards of Canada have enmeshed their music within the trappings of live instrumentation, placing them squarely in the middle of an intersection with infinite roads trailing outward. "A little part [of using the guitars] on the new album is to open up the scope for what we want to do in the future," comments Mike. "There's kind of a destiny for where the music is going to go but we haven't managed to do it yet. Maybe the new record will kind of open the door for future options."
"It doesn't necessarily mean the next album will be a Deep Purple record," adds Marcus jokingly. The brothers have an unexpectedly wry sense of humor that comes as a pleasant surprise given the melancholy and often ominous tones of their music. "We could go and make a record that's really electronic but we know now that we've got a platform to go in any direction we want. We're trying to make sure that people don't define us purely as an electronic band."
Being defined by labels or pidgeonholed to a particular scene or genre are two things that both Sandison brothers agree are detrimental to their music making. "We don't buy into anything," declares Marcus. "When there's something that we're really into we still try to have some objectivity about it."
"We're sort of cultural nomads," supports Mike. "I don't see us in part of a group - social or musical." Their publicly released records all bear an undeniable trademark of textured ambience and reworked hip-hop breaks and-like it or not-the winning combination has led to considerable praise by electronic music fans. But privately, hidden away in their private studio (which is rumored to house hundreds of rare and irreplaceable instruments), are thousands of tracks of organic, acoustic and experimental music that they hope to one day release under various pseudonyms. It's just one of a number of examples during the conversation that show both brother's love of simple, organic instrumentation.
Mike elaborates, "People may be surprised to hear that of the demos that get sent to us, we truly love the ones that are really homemade, sort of crap and unfinished. The ones that are rough around the edges. The demos that are really slick electronica-type things are the ones that get listened to once and put on the shelves."
"The thing with electronic music these days," says Marcus, "is that so much of it nowadays can be really good but it's so studio-based. So the moment you try and take it out, it's either played back form the laptop or a mess for someone who isn't able to play it live. The laptop performance thing has never been something that's appealed to us."
Continuing on the live element, Mike tells a story that will certainly add to an increase in message board chatter, "I think it's commetable that people are creating software to do that because at least it's better than someone turning up to a show and pressing play on a .wav file. We know a guy who is a very high profile electronic producer in Britain - very famous in some electronic circles - and he played a show in Glasgow one time and he told us that he had just played a cassette and stood on stage pretending to press buttons. And he thought it was funny. We were laughing but also horrified at the same time."
The mixture of humor, honesty, passion and creativity is something revealed only by meeting these two self-confessed reclusive artists in person. Instead, all most of us have to objectively evaluate about Boards of Canada is their music. It's a scenario the brothers have worked very hard to cultivate. Most importantly, however, and perhaps the chief reason they've surfaced for this brief set of interviews--besides dispelling myths of course--is to reveal that they are musicians with purpose and that music is but one way for them to achieve that purpose. "If you had to vaguely approximate a purpose behind our music," summarizes Marcus, "for me it would be like we are soundtracking the alternative place you might be right now. You wouldn't be dead but you'd just be in a different world; everything would be quite alien, so you'd wonder what would the music be like. What would you be hearing?" He continues, "I think perhaps the theme of what we're doing is instead of looking forward we are looking backward to the positivity that you might have had as a child. And we want to take it as a fuel and be inspired by it. I think of myself as the kind of person that even when I'm 80 I'll still be listening to weird music and playing computer games. I don't want to be the kind of person that gives up on youth." It's a sentiment shared by both brothers and, I'm sure, by most of the enthusiastic fans who hope to be listening to the "weird" music of Boards of Canada far into their eighties as well.
Boards of Canada on...
Marcus: You have to allow some spiritual element when making music. But we don't mean that in any kind of mumbo jumbo faux religious way, because some people have misquoted us and made us sound like a couple of magicians or something. A lot of musicians don't seem to have that spiritual element because they are just working when they make music. Like they have another agenda and are doing it for other reasons. But the most interesting musicians seem to be the ones that are tying to go somewhere else with their music. A bit like he whole escapist or science fiction fantasy thing, it's the ones that look at music and think: how could things be different?
Mike: When you are signed to a label like Warp, you know that there's an audience of people out there buying [your music]. You can try to ignore it and try to imagine there's no one listening but there is always a feeling in the back of your mind that you have certain things to live up to regarding production standards. You wouldn't be able to get away with putting out an album with an 18-minute long ambient track in the middle of all pop and soul tracks. That's the kind of thing we do on our old tapes. We wouldn't have gotten shit aobut it and we would have just done it. It wouldn't have mattered. But now we have these considerations because we're putting out records that force use to think aobut the average person who buys them.
Marcus: At the particular age we were at when we lived in Canada you are more likely to notice the differences between where you come from and where you're visiting. The things that out like TV and music, the way people dress are the things that you carry with you when you leave that place. I thik it's been imprinted on us. For us, it was a very specific time--1979 to 1980 North American media culture--that left like a ghostly shadow that sort of stuck to us. We came away form there with a memory of the palce that was nostalgic to the extent that we've been trying to get back there ever since. Not geographically, but more like a feeling. By making music that makes you travel to that place.
Mike: Now I find that a lot of the depression about losing my childhood has gone by the wayside because I'm able to go back there with my little daughter. Kids do a lot of interesting things that you kind of vaguely remember doing yourself but have shutoff as an adult. You start to realize that life doesn't have to be about being completly conscious of the universe's problems. It can be really fulfilling if you just concentrate on a little microscopic version of life that a child sees. As a parent you have no choice but to occasionally lose yourself in a child's world like The Jungle Book of something. It's a bit like what we do with our music. It's like saying to yourself that just for this hour I'm gonna switch off all the crap in the world and lose myself in an alternative world. Like a good book or something. It's kind of how we see what we do with our records. Although it's becoming increasingly difficult the older we get. It's much harder to not put our political beliefs into the music.
Marcus: I know it sounds strange to say it but I've always thought of Stevie Wonder as an electronic artist. A lot of his bass line were done on synths. He's done project albums like The Secret Life of Plants that are all synthesizers, all done with keyboards. You wouldn't describe him as rock and it's too lazy to describe him as R&B or soul. To me, it's electronic but it's absolutely organic. Here you have incredible singing, incredible tunes, and amazing use of keyboards. Sometimes I step back and think aobut the sound of Stevie in the '70s and it shoes just how different electronic music can be.
Mike: We were already huge fans of Beck's music and friends with the guys form Anticon. Dose and I are big penpals. I think Beck's producers asked the Anticon guys if they had a contact for us and the next thing we know we get a letter asking us to do [this remix of] Beck's. We said that we'd love to hear the track first and see what it's like and I said to Marcus at one stage that if this track is really slow and empty we'll do it. Marcus: I actually told Warp six months earlier to don't call us about remixes unless it's Beck or God.